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Spencer Haywood remembers his legendary Olympic basketball run in 1968



Spencer Haywood remembers his legendary Olympic basketball run in 1968

LAS VEGAS – Olympic gold medalist Spencer Haywood smiled proudly and reminisced as he studied a bottle of vintage 1968 wine from Freemark Abbey Winery that he later enjoyed at a private luncheon Wednesday.

Back in 1968, Haywood was known as “The Kid” during the 1968 Mexico City Games, where he unexpectedly led the United States to a gold medal in men’s basketball at 19 and becoming the youngest American basketball player in Olympic history. He also saw American track medalists John Carlos and Tommie Smith get thrown out of the Olympic Village after they raised their fists in a Black Power salute on the medal stand. USA Basketball has been celebrating its 50-year anniversary this week here, including a guest appearance by former President Barack Obama at a private dinner Tuesday night.

While there are USA Basketball Olympians dating back to 1964 being honored this week, Haywood’s time in the Summer Games was as rewarding and tumultuous as perhaps anyone who has donned the red, white and blue.

“I did a video for them last night and I explained that this is the most honorable thing you can do, especially at this time in American history, because it was similar to my history year in ’68 where we had turmoil, we had all kinds of things going on,” Haywood said at Sadelle’s restaurant in the Bellagio hotel Wednesday. “And the same thing is going on in America here now. And this is a unification Olympic team more so than just a regular team. This one here means so much because it will bring us together as a nation when we are scattered. And so that’s what I tell you, bring home [gold], and you’ll bring America back to realization. Everybody.”

Haywood, who was inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame in 2015, and USA Basketball gold medalists Tim Hardaway and Carlos Boozer reminisced about their Olympic moments from 1968, 2000 and 2008, respectively, at a luncheon sponsored by USA Basketball sponsor Kendall-Jackson Wines. USA Basketball also honored male and female players and coaches from past years during USA Basketball’s exhibition game against Canada on Wednesday night at T-Mobile Arena.

The following are excerpts from Haywood’s words at the luncheon, where the 75-year-old talked in detail about his unique, life-changing basketball experience at the 1968 Mexico City Games:

Basketball Hall of Fame member Spencer Haywood (left) talks with former U.S. President Barack Obama (right) in the second half of an exhibition game between Canada and the United States at T-Mobile Arena on July 10 in Las Vegas.

Ethan Miller/Getty Images

I’m not like [Boozer and Hardaway] — you guys were selected. I’m staring at that bottle because I had to come into a big arena in Albuquerque in ‘The Pit’ and we had NAIA, AAU, the Armed Forces, NCAA [Division] I, II and III. So, they put us all in this big place and we were going to play seven days of games. I was just there to get me some gear. I was 19 years old. I was playing for Trinidad State Junior College in [Trinidad], Colorado. I signed with the University of Tennessee because I want my family to see me play in Mississippi and Mississippi State. I was the first Black, so [the SEC] was a little tight. And [then-Kentucky coach] Adolph Rupp said [he] was supposed to get the first Black player because [they] had just lost to Texas Western.

So, that’s when the argument came about. And [basketball coach] Will Robinson, who raised me like his son, he shot me down to Trinidad and so that’s where I was playing. And [USA Basketball] just said, ‘Well, we are going to get sued if we don’t invite anyone from a junior college.’ So, I was the MVP of the junior college [players], but I was a freshman. So they were like, ‘Well, just throw him in.’ And I still was thinking at least I got to get that [USA Basketball] gear, man. I’m going to go back to Detroit [after tryouts] and show up [wearing it]. So, they started with the selection of the team. Once we were playing all of these games and they kept cutting people, they cut Pete Maravich, who was averaging 44 points a game. I’m like, ‘Whoa.’ They cut Calvin Murphy, who was averaging 33. I was like, whoa. And they cut all of these players.

We were also in 1968. There was this revolution going on in America. Now, they had Tommie Smith, John Carlos, all of us was on that [USA Olympic] team in Mexico City. We had to have a meeting with Martin Luther King with John Carlos, Tommie Smith and Dr. Harry Edwards just before [King] got murdered. [Olympic gold medalist] Jesse Owens came down [to speak to the 1968 USA Olympics team]. And so, we were like, ‘Man, I’m going into the fire.’

But on this team, when they got to me, [then-USA Basketball men’s coach] Hank Iba said, ‘Well, we got our first player picked. I’m taking the kid.’ Nobody gave me my name at that time. I was the kid.’ He said, ‘I’m taking the kid.’ And I was like, ‘Oh, s—, I got a real uniform, not just some gear.’ And so they said, ‘Well, you guys must put in your birth certificate and your passport. I was like, ‘Oh s—. Where am I going to get a passport from and where am I going to get my birth certificate?’ So, we called my mother. Did you have a birth certificate? No, I was born by midwife in Silver City, Mississippi, and she just wrote it in the Bible on John: 21. My father was John. So, they had to go down and take a picture of the Bible, get it to the Jackson [Mississippi] vital statistics, and they created this birth certificate.

And when they came back and I was like, ‘Hey, that’s not my name. It says Spencie.’ And so they changed my name and we were off to Russia and to Yugoslavia [for exhibitions]. We get into Russia and they like feeding us this filet mignon. They was like, ‘We have the best steaks ever. This filet mignon. And [USA teammate] Jo Jo White [made a horse noise]. And I started saying, ‘Wait a minute, this is what I ate in Mississippi. This is horse. This was horse with gravy on it.’ So [USA teammate] Charlie Scott, he’s from New York. He just nearly died. We had to send him back home because he couldn’t eat the horse. It was delicious. Yeah. [In my youth] we ate squirrels. Well, a rare time I knocked out a possum, but only a rare time. Roadkill is not far out of our diet [in Mississippi].

So, here we are in Russia and we are just playing. We went down to one end of the court and we are up by 24. We come back down, the score is even. We were in Russia. So, they ended up beating us of course, and then we worked our way back to play the [New York] Knicks in a scrimmage. And [then-Knicks center] Willis Reed was saying, ‘You guys got a good team. You might be all right.’ We wasn’t expected to win s—. We were not that team and they were just getting introduced to me. And so, we played against the Knicks, we killed them, and they were like, whoa. Then we went to Cincinnati, we played Cincinnati and Oscar Robertson took us upstairs and we had a little lunch with him and he was talking about, ‘You guys gotta stand up for America.’

And we also had John McLendon, who was a legend, as one of our coaches, and we had Hank Iba, who had coached two Olympics at that time. We had a strong group of men, we had military, we had [a] junior college freshman [nicknamed] The Kid. So, it was a beautiful thing. But we got into Mexico City and there was this shoot-out between the college students and the Mexican army. So, they were sweeping up the blood from all of the murders they had created in there. Then we got into the village and I’m seeing this big old guy coming around. ‘Hey, man, me and you going to eat this place up?’ It was George Foreman. He still eating it, made a lot of money from it.

But we had a great time down there. And at the end of it, when Tommie and John won the race and put the [black] glove up, we was like, ‘Yeah, man, this is beautiful.’ So, the [USA] Olympic committee said they get kicked out of the village. They kicked them out of the village, took our passport and said, ‘If you all think about protesting or just doing anything […] you’re never going to come home.’ And that’s why you saw when George Foreman knocked out the Russian, he had a little American flag. George said, ‘I got to get back home.’ So, everybody’s asking George, ‘What about that American flag?’ ‘Man, I was just trying to get back to Houston.’

So, that was a heavy thing. Now when I got on the podium and we won all of our games and we got on the podium to receive that medal, I was thinking in my mind, I started crying. Even times when I talk about this, I start just bubbling a bit because when we was writing my book [The Spencer Haywood Rule: Battles, Basketball, and the Making of an American Iconoclast], I was bubbling up again because three years before I was a slave basically in Silver City, Mississippi. We were sharecroppers picking cotton from sunup to sundown. No money, no nothing. And now here I am with this gold medal on my neck and a passport and I’m thinking, ‘Wow, this could only happen in America.’ And so, I just cried. And Jo Jo White gets up on me and says, ‘Get up, stand up and stop acting like a damn [freshman].’ But that was my emotional period.

Team USA center Spencer Haywood dunks in the gold medal game against Yugoslavia in Mexico City on Oct. 25, 1968.


It was life-changing… They know your name now. And I was worried when Howard Cosell said, ‘When you get back to Detroit, the Detroit people are going to, they’re going to shun you because you went to the Olympics,’ because we had a boycott that year as well. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar boycotted. Elvin Hayes, Wes Unseld, all those guys signed a pro contract. We were only taking amateurs. I thought I was going to be hung in Detroit by the brothas. When I got back, we landed in Detroit at the Metropolitan Airport. 4,000 people were there, Blacks, Whites. Everybody was like, ‘He did it. He brought glory to America and to Detroit.’ And that was a wonderful thing. They gave him the key to the city, the governor. Not Mitt Romney, but his dad, George Romney. Yeah. It was powerful.

Very proud of that moment because we did something against the grain because, like I said, there was a Black boycott of that ’68 Olympics, and we did something incredible. We won all of our games. The exhibition game against Russia was the fluke. But other than that, we did really great. And everyone was so proud that we stuck it out because there was protests everywhere about us being there. And then when we won the gold, America was like, yeah, this is what it’s all about. So, it was a powerful, powerful thing.

I averaged 16.1 [points per game]. I held the [American] record in the Olympics and I held it for 44 years until Kevin Durant broke it in 2012. But I keep telling you that it’s not a real record that he’s broken because he shot 3s and we didn’t shoot 3s. We only had 2s. I was like, ‘Just like a damn Sonic.’ We both played for the Seattle SuperSonics. And I blamed Kevin. I said, ‘That’s why we don’t have a team [in Seattle anymore].’

I was amongst everybody [Tuesday night]. The young players like Devin Booker, Kevin Durant, LeBron [James], and all of ’em were there. Before I could say, ‘Hey, guys, I’m this guy,’ they were like, ‘We know what you did for us …’ They are just wonderful young men and it’s been a wonderful time. I’m so blessed to be alive and well.

Marc J. Spears is the senior NBA writer for Andscape. He used to be able to dunk on you, but he hasn’t been able to in years and his knees still hurt.

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